Monday, July 29, 2013

Keegan's: Not Flavor Town

While Sister Foodie was visiting last week during her Summer Couch-surfing Tour of 2013, we ventured to the beach to get some soft-shell crabs at Keegan's Seafood Grille. The few meals I've had at this relaxed seafood standby in Indian Rocks Beach have left a good taste in my mouth (heh..heh). Too bad this visit had to be the exception.

On a hot and sunny beach day, we entered the weathered, nautical-themed seaside dive that shares a shopping plaza with a salon and a few other businesses. The odor of bleach permeated the air as we sat ourselves in an empty restaurant at the height of lunch hour. I'm glad the place was clean, but I can do without the chlorine vapor at mealtime. Save for a couple of other tables, we were the lone diners. Perplexing. I've always been wait-listed here.

My usual order is the soft-shell crab dinner, which features two fried soft crabs, coleslaw and corn. A seriously reasonable $15.99, the crabs are decent size, carry a light crust and, upon the initial chomp, produce the requisite squirt of crabby nectar. Although I usually sauté them in butter after a dredge in Old Bay-seasoned flour, I don't mind a deep-fried soft crab every now and then. Much to my disappointment, Keegan's had 86'd the soft crabs the day of our lunch visit due to a sellout the previous evening.

Yes fans, hanging on the wall is a poster of Guy "Never Met a Dish I Didn't Like " Fieri

As I tried to erase the image of Guy Fieri grinning -- creepily -- at me from the wall opposite our table, I perused the menu in search of Plan B. With that autographed picture threatening to ruin my appetite, I debated between the blackened grouper sandwich (a favorite of Son of Hubs) or the grouper cheek po' boy (on the specials list). I got neither. Sister and I decided to share an appetizer of fried grouper bites, a plate of steamed shrimp and an order of mussels.

Served with lifeless tartar sauce overwhelmed by mayo, the fried grouper bites were piping hot, moist and tender but the batter was just plain bland. Grouper may be a great fish but it still needs a smack of seasoning. A slice of lemon and a scoop of mayo aren't going to tickle any taste buds. A missed opportunity.

As Sister tossed the mussel shells aside, she shook her head at the tasteless, watery broth in which the plump Prince Edward Island mollusks were swimming. Served with a big hunk of garlic bread intended for a soak in the shellfish pool, the mussel dish failed to bring forth any dipping motion from Foodie's hand. Where, oh where, was the white wine, shallots, butter and garlic bath that normally enriches a bowl of steamed mussels? Those ingredients may have been in the kitchen but they weren't enhancing this dish. Neither was the cup of melted butter in the bull's-eye of the plate (above).

The steamed shrimp were served hot (as ordered) but were led down the same ho-hum path. Although fairly large and fresh, the shrimp needed a flavor boost. True to their menu description, they had only a touch of seasoning. They would have been so much better with a wallop of Old Bay followed by a steam bath in beer, but the saving grace was the cocktail sauce, which packed some horseradish punch.

We also got a side of french fries, which did not deviate from the emerging pattern of acceptable but uninspired cooking.

Service was friendly and I loved the fact that our server didn't rush us to order entrees when we requested the appetizer and a couple of beers. She knew we were there to relax. Then again, only a handful of folks were in the place, so why would she care how long we lingered?

Keegan's is a reasonably priced and hospitable place that serves fresh seafood, but it is in no way Flavor Town USA. By the way, if my research is correct, Guy "Donkey Sauce" Fieri filmed his "Triple D" segment here several years ago before the restaurant changed ownership.

Verdict: Needs seasoning.

Keegan's Seafood Grille on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Piquant Has Promise

When you hear the word "piquant" do you automatically think "cronut?" Around these parts you'd think piquant meant something other than its Webster's definition of "agreeably stimulating to the palate," but I guess a cronut might fit that bill. I wouldn't know because I've been to Piquant twice and they didn't have any samples of the half-donut, half-croissant creations. Due to the current cronut craze, you must now pre-order them. 

Hats off to Piquant's pastry chef/co-owner for putting this place on the map by frying up dough until he supposedly replicated the latest food fad that's captivated New York's sweet freaks. I look forward to snapping one up when the furor dies down.

In the meantime, I've broken bread at this spot for breakfast and lunch and, true to its proper dictionary definition, it's quite pleasant -- but not without issues. Hubs and I cruised down to Hyde Park Village for a late breakfast on the 4th of July. As always, the Old Hyde Park shopping area was a ghost town -- totally inexcusable for this charming, historic section of Tampa. By the way, Williams-Sonoma has closed, joining the numerous stores and restaurants that have packed up their Hyde Park inventory and run for the hills.

Speaking of restaurants that bravely gave it a go in Old Hyde Park, if you ever ate at Restaurant BT or Sophie's, you'll recognize the Piquant space. The bakery case anchors the same place it occupied at Sophie's, and sits where that eye-popping bar stood at BT's. A chalkboard menu adorns the wall behind the case.

A conversation area at the far end of the restaurant encourages coffee drinkers to lounge on a sofa and hang out, while a high-backed, padded black banquette accommodates diners and helps break up the large dining space that's replete with black tables and clear acrylic bistro chairs. French tunes complement the modern décor and round out the Parisian mood. If a controlled climate isn't your thing, al fresco dining also is an option on a spacious, covered patio that fronts the meandering, pedestrian-friendly Snow Avenue.

Since it was a holiday, Piquant had extended their hours for breakfast service, so Hubs ordered an omelet and I got a fried egg, bacon and cheese baguette. We both had coffee and split an almond croissant. A patisserie and café, Piquant features a bakery case full of tarts, cakes, croissants and other sweet temptations. My biggest complaint about bakeries is that everything typically looks great but tastes past its prime. I'm uncertain whether age was the case with the almond croissant or whether the construction simply lacked the layers of flake and fluff that make eating a truly great croissant a memorable experience. This one was doughy but had a nice exterior almond glaze.

That's the only less-than-sweet thing I have to say about our breakfast. The Buddy Brew French roast coffee was excellent and the server kept it coming. Hubs special-requested an egg-white omelet, a dish Hubster thought noteworthy because egg-white omelets usually are tasteless; he raved about this one containing smoked Gouda cheese and Canadian bacon.

On my side of the table, thick and flavorful Applewood smoked bacon, aged Cheddar cheese and an over-hard fried egg were piled on a crunchy, crusty baguette, making one savory and satisfying breakfast sandwich.

Neither the sandwich nor the omelet was accompanied by a side dish or garnish, so don't expect home fries, toast, a slice of orange or even a sprig of parsley to appear on your plate. I realize food cost is a major concern but a little garnish would go a long way. Sides exist but they're all a la carte.

Because we thoroughly enjoyed our breakfast, I didn't have any difficulty persuading the Hubs to return for lunch -- and I even took a few photos!

Hubs had an "oops" moment when he bit into the chicken salad on croissant (above) and discovered diced onions or shallots. He balks at the onion family in raw form and was surprised to find it in chicken salad. Just as he does when I try to sneak onions in at home, he poked and prodded around them; otherwise, he gave good marks to the smoked chicken salad with apple, brie and avocado. He said the croissant itself was dense and lacked freshness. The thin-cut french fries, on the other hand, were hot, crispy and addictive.

I tried the puree du potage et lardon (potato and bacon soup), which was super thick, laden with heavy cream, pureed potato and chunks of bacon. It was too heavy and somewhat underseasoned for my taste.

Knowing a pastry chef was in the house, I bypassed the salads and sandwiches on the menu and zoomed in on the quiche simply to sample the crust. Served a bit warmer than room temperature, the bacon and Gruyere quiche was remarkable in texture and flavor. The crust was buttery and flaky, not the least bit soggy from the tender custard. Similar to the breakfast presentations, except for a zigzag of balsamic syrup, the quiche stood alone, but priced at $5 for a substantial slice, it's an incredible bargain.

One last comment about lunch: The coffee was not hot. When refilled, it still was not hot. When replaced with a fresh cup because it was tepid, it still was not hot! At $2.95 a cup, you'd best get that coffee hot. I'd hate to see this place packing up their cronuts.

With a few tweaks and the cronut craze getting people in the door, Piquant could be the eatery that succeeds where others have faltered. I hope so. The staff is eager to please and it's obvious that they are making the effort.

Verdict: A few bumps but worth a visit.

Piquant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Gastrogrub: Tampa Trifecta

As our friends and relatives will attest, Hubmeister and I have been known to darken the door of a pub or two. In fact, soaking up good adult beverages in fun, interesting places ranks high on our list of great excuses not to do yard work. It's an added bonus if the drinking establishment serves decent food. Unfortunately, bar food typically is -- how do I put this delicately -- crap. With the onset of the gastropub explosion a few years back, that tendency thankfully has started to change. Even here!

Before I get to my reviews, though, I would like to address a disturbing trend and put it out there that, unlike a growing number of Tampa food bloggers, I do not blog for food (or drink). Food and Loathing in Tampa Bay features unbiased opinion based on a typical dining experience. I do not attend manufactured blogger events or accept free meals in exchange for restaurant reviews. Nice try with those invitations, however.

Now that you know my stance on the bribing-the-blogger phenomenon, without further ado I present a few local watering holes where Hubs and I, as always, showed up anonymously and used our own cash to grab a bite and enjoy a few cold ones.

New World Brewery - Ybor
Nestled behind a wall of leafy green foliage, this cool spot sits near the corner of E. 8th Avenue and N. 13th Street in Ybor City. On a cool spring day we strolled through an inviting outdoor beer garden and into a bar filled with old-world ambience. The atmosphere is pub-like, with brick walls, a dark-wood bar and distressed flooring.

New World runs a weekday barbecue buffet from 11 a.m. till 3 p.m. Sold by weight, you can load up on meat that is smoked on site, along with an array of barbecue-type sides. The Hubster and I loathe buffets of any kind, mainly because we are germaphobes but also because we can't stand seeing food sitting comatose under lights.

We opted for something straight from the kitchen -- away from the sneezing, finger-licking masses -- and got a stone-seared 14-inch pizza that was pretty darned good. The crust had a satisfying bite and lived up to its "super thin" menu description. A mozzarella/Romano cheese blend was a nice change of pace from a standard mozzarella-topped pie, but if you fancy trying different pizza bases and toppings, this place offers several creative options, from a black bean base with Italian sausage, green pepper and onion to a white-sauce pizza topped with artichoke, smoked chicken and feta cheese. Recipe wizards also can come up with their own concoctions, but New World's suggestions look good to me.

The bar features a ton of draft and bottled beer and the bartenders are happy to suggest a brew to suit your taste. There's a fully loaded jukebox to liven things up when a live band isn't performing. Check the website to see who's lined up on the calendar.

Verdict: A bar find and a fine bar.

New World Brewery on Urbanspoon

Independent Bar & Cafe - Seminole Heights
This converted gas station/garage on Florida Avenue sits next to Cappy's Pizza in Seminole Heights. Hubs and I were puzzled when we first went inside because you can sit anywhere you want but, similar to pubs in England, it's up to you to approach the bar and order. You also place food orders at the bar and when the dish is ready, somebody runs it to your table.

The evening we checked it out, the weather was nice and most people were imbibing outside, enjoying the sights and sounds of picturesque Florida Avenue. (Come on, you know that's funny!) Okay, maybe not. Anyway, we chose an inside spot and pretended we weren't on Florida Avenue.

If you plan to order more than one small plate, sit at a normal table. Only thing is, I don't think they have one. Maybe outside. The few inside tables are Munchkin-level low to the ground. What this establishment does feature are plenty of industrial-looking wood-block drink stands that don't provide enough room for more than a couple of drinks, much less plates of food. Eventually we moved from an uncomfortable wooden bench along a wall to an uncomfortable child-sized table.

Overall, the interior vibe beckons the 20-something hipster: one who enjoys alternative music and sleeps soundly on a futon. Read: Hubmeister and I are getting old.

Our aging butts aside, nobody inside was ordering food, but, hey, we felt compelled to try a few things. Hubman bellied up to the bar and ordered German pretzels, a bratwurst and sauerkraut plate, and a grilled cheese sandwich. Grilled cheese sandwich, you snobbishly ask? Mais oui, mes amis! This is the Indie Grilled Cheese, not "cheese food" smashed between squares of greasy grilled white bread.

The Indie combines Gouda cheese with pears that have been sautéed with honey and spices. This lovely combo, served on rye and pressed to oozing opulence, is served with a tasty salad of field greens, blue cheese, walnuts and grapes, all splashed with a poppy seed vinaigrette.

The pretzel is standard fare and comes with a sweet German mustard. As for the bratwurst, Hubs downed his beer-infused link in short order. (Hint: Spring for a second sausage if you have any semblance of an appetite.) The dish is served in trendy "deconstructed" fashion, with the grilled sausage, sauerkraut, beer onion sauce and toast points each staking its claim to the plate.

But wait, toast points and bratwurst? The Germans are laughing. In any case, it was all good, especially the beer sauce.

Verdict: Neighborhood hangout with amped-up food and drink.

Independent Bar & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Cigar City Brewpub - Carrollwood
Although it's more restaurant than pub, Cigar City seems to fit into this bar-hopping post. Must be the vats of beer looming within a chicharron's throw from the bar. Be that as it may, the mood created by those industrial tanks does nothing for me. They remind me of the old Hops restaurants that met their demise a couple of decades ago, when I thought dining among enormous stainless steel containers was cool.

So we noted the huge vessels near the front door and were shown to a booth where we joined the Mississippi Maven and her beer-lovin' Mississippi Man. We promptly ordered pints of Cigar City brew, appetizers of chicharrons and Cuban egg rolls, and burgers.

While enjoying the mighty fine beer, I absorbed the former TGI Friday's space: bar on one side, a couple of rectangular-shaped dining areas on the other and additional table seating on an outside patio. The view: dismal parking lot, garden-variety strip center and endless traffic on Dale Mabry Highway. Maybe this is Hops! Nope, Hops didn't have beer can chandeliers. 

Cigar City has gotten some mixed reviews, with critics lauding the food and many everyday diners panning it. Here's what Hubs and I thought: The chicharrons, a.k.a. deep-fried nuggets of pig skin, were oversalted. Hubs is now chiming in that he has had them in Miami where they were far superior because these, he complains, were not crispy enough. After all, nobody wants flabby skin. The rest of us have no frame of reference so you have to trust Hubster, who spent many a business trip pigging out in Miami.

The egg rolls were more to my liking. Picture a large egg roll, composed of Cuban sandwich ingredients, that's cut in half, providing two people with a normal-sized bite. Then imagine those fried Cuban morsels of pork, ham, salami, cheese and pickles diving into a mustard dipping sauce. How can one go wrong with these? Well, one can't.

As much as I hate restaurant groupthink, all of us ordered the house burger, which is made from grass-fed beef. Mine was cooked to a perfect medium, which is no small feat when I'm manning the grill at home. I find burgers really hard to get right, so I appreciate one that's perfectly cooked. A-plus on that score. The flavor profile was interesting, meaning I liked it, ate it, but wouldn't repeat it. Served on a brioche bun, the burger included plantains, bacon, sofrito (a seasoning of pureed tomatoes, peppers, garlic, onion and cilantro) and roasted garlic aioli. The sweetness of the plantains put me off somewhat. Asked if we wanted more garlic aioli, I should have said yes. It would have counteracted that sweetness and provided additional moisture too. 

Accompanying the burgers were malanga chips. Popular in Cuba, malanga is a tropical root that resembles a sweet potato. I liked the chips, but I wouldn't make a return trip for them.
Our server was attentive and dutifully explained the beer offerings, the restaurant's theme of adhering to Tampa's cultural roots, and the Spanish- and Cuban-inspired menu. He inquired if we wanted dessert and we declined, or at least declined what most people would consider dessert. As we were about to leave the table, the Maven's Man hesitated, contemplated and finally caved. In anticipation, we waited for his request...a piece of flourless chocolate cake or perhaps bread pudding du jour? Ah, we should have known, he got another round of Cigar City Jai Alai IPA. Now that's what I call a sweet finish.

Verdict: The beer is the star.

Cigar City Brewpub Restaurant on Urbanspoon